The Week In Westminster: Citizen Blair leads mob as Tory shadows fade away

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The Independent Online
IT WAS A wretched week for parliamentary democracy which began with the Prime Minister determined to forsake the Commons Punch and Judy show for the soft sofa of the Richard and Judy television show.

Fed up with MPs and lobby journalists pestering him with trivial questions about politics, he was determined that the country should focus attention on the great issues which concern him: namely how his children are coping; his Seychelles holiday snapshots; the welfare of Humphrey the retired Downing Street cat; and his views on Glenn Hoddle.

John Major, rather than William Hague, most effectively punctured the Prime Minister's attempts at governing by mob rule, pointing out that the Government never misses any target if it can deliver an easy headline.

"If there is a mob mentality the Government will put themselves at the head of that in order to garner a headline or two," Mr Major said.

THE DEBATE on the House of Lords Bill, lasting two days, was thinly attended and, for the most part, dull. Proceedings were enlivened by the speech of Tony Benn (Lab, Chesterfield) who shocked the House when he pulled out of his pocket a phial of his own blood.

Forty years ago he was expelled from the House on the grounds that he was disqualified when he inherited a peerage from his father, Viscount Stansgate.

Mr Benn was sent to an election court where two judges declared a hereditary peerage was "an incorporeal hereditament affixed in the blood and annexed to the posterity". Mr Benn was so curious he went and had some blood taken out. "I still have it, although I am afraid it is clotted now", he said, brandishing the offending item before MPs.

The absence of Tony Blair (and William Hague) from any of the proceedings was compensated for by the return to the fray of former prime ministers Sir Edward Heath and John Major.

SIR EDWARD stole the show from the Tory front bench in a remarkable speech of clarity providing the only concrete alternative to the Government's proposals.

Playing up to both the gallery and his advancing years, he emulated Harold Macmillan by using dramatic pauses. Just when everyone thought he was too decrepit to remember what to say next he stunned his own side by calling for the Lords to be elected. "That will cause astonishment - I think I heard a great gasp of breath behind me."

On hearing that Sir Edward had only created 48 life peers in his three- and-a-half years as prime minister compared with Mr Blair's 105 in less than two years, Andrew Mackinlay (Lab, Thurrock) dubbed him "the people's prime minister".

John Major (score: 171 life peers) complained that many former Tory MPs were so keen to go to the House of Lords that they promised to turn up morning, noon and night and even on Sundays: "No sooner are their bottoms on the red leather benches than they zip off somewhere else and turn up occasionally."

As Mr Major spoke, sheepishly gazing down at him from the Public Gallery were none other than Lords Archer andLamont. The worst offender is John Moore (remember him?) who was once tipped to be Tory leader and was Mrs Thatcher's secretary of state for social security. Raised to the peerage seven years ago, as Lord Moore of Lower Marsh, he has yet to make his maiden speech in the upper chamber.

FRANK FIELD (Lab, Birkenhead) again stuck the knife into the Government's pension proposals but began his speech in the Tory-initiated debate with a confession. Before he came into the chamber he had received a message that his new pager was waiting in the Government Whip's Office. This was to be the last social security debate in which he would participate without one. "Should I go off-message during this debate it will be unintentional but I will not be able to plead that in future," he said.

Thankfully Mr Field provided the only real opposition to the Government. At one stage there was nobody on the Tory front bench, even though the debate was being held in their time.

BARONESS THATCHER, as befits the Iron Lady, wore the metaphorical shield of Britannia. Michael Heseltine, to the delight of Spitting Image, frequently waltzed around military bases in a flak-jacket, and, until recently, Gordon Brown had Charlie Whelan to protect him; but no one has yet felt it necessary for Treasury ministers to seek body armour protection. Until now.

The new Paymaster-General, Dawn Primarolo, has been officially issued with a "ballistic undervest". The normally chic Miss Primarolo is shortly to attend the European Community Monitoring Mission in Sarajevo. The Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean told Parliament that the Government has issued a licence for the export by Miss Primarolo of the less-than-elegant underwear to Bosnia "in view of the obvious need for the mission to be able to protect its staff". If only Miss Primarolo's predecessor, Geoffrey Robinson, had had such a garment to protect him while he was at the Treasury maybe he would still be there today.

DOWNING STREET'S Chief Spin Doctor, Alastair Campbell, has been drawing lobby correspondents' attention to an article written in the New Nation by Steve Pope, who followed the parliamentary rat-pack's coverage of Tony Blair's visit to South Africa.

"A bigger bunch of middle-class, public school, arrogant, smug, patronising, cynical, nasty, self-important merchant bankers you'd be hard-pressed to find," wrote Mr Pope.

All that will now change with the emergence this week of The Independent's Chief Political Correspondent, the secondary-modern-educated Colin Brown, as chairman of the lobby. Colin's principal task in this powerful role is to chair the twice-daily press briefings and brawlings between the lobby and Mr Campbell.

His first promise to Mr Campbell will be: "I was elected as new lobby; I shall chair as new lobby."

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